June 15, 2024

Accessible travel: Rights on flights

Disability rights campaigners are putting the pressure on airlines with a #RightsonFlights campaign calling for a law change

Disability rights campaigners are calling for a change in the law so that carriers and their agents are fined if they damage mobility equipment or fail to provide adequate assistance to those with additional needs.

Charity, Disability Rights UK, disabled TV presenter Sophie Morgan and MP Marion Fellows have joined forces for a campaign that calls on the Government to give the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) powers to fine airlines and others when they fall short.

The experience

Sophie, a wheelchair user who frequently travels internationally for her TV work, was driven to act after her bespoke wheelchair and electric-powered front-wheel BATEC system was damaged beyond use on a Los Angeles to London journey, something many disabled travellers dread. 

The campaign calls for airlines and ‘other actors’ to be held accountable for damage to mobility devices. It also wants fines and repercussions when disabled passengers are left on flights for a prolonged period after landing, or are not provided with adequate assistance despite prior request. 

”This campaign is the beginning of a journey towards a system overhaul of the entire airline industry,” says Sophie.

Promising progress

Campaigns like this and the growing pressure of social media – with live streaming of terrible treatment – mean reputations are now at stake if providers don’t get this right. IATA has accepted the need for improvement and countered with new guidance this year for its 300 airline members. This clearly states the best practise processes that should be followed. 

In the US, Airlines for America last year also jointly committed to improving accessibility, recognising this as a fast growing traveller sector. Some aircraft do have removable armrests to make seats more easily accessible and some carry aisle-accessible wheelchairs to aid access to lavatories. Newer aircraft even have wheelchair-accessible toilets, but the biggest challenge for travellers is that they just don’t know what will or will not be on offer on any given flight. This is where the travel trade’s role can be crucial in gathering information and matching passenger needs to a commitment to deliver appropriate services.

Designing for all

Campaigners insist it is not just a question of attitudes and revised policies, however. 

In the longer term, Disability Rights UK believes there is a real need for aircrafts to be redesigned and systems to support disabled travellers when flights don’t go entirely to plan need to be standardised and well communicated. Many ocean-going cruise liners and rail operators have already embraced the need for accessible design and airlines are beginning to follow that lead.

United Airlines redesigned its entertainment system after detailed accessibility research. The bespoke system includes audio descriptions for blind passengers, text-to-speech functions and subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, and many other features. Delta has a new seat design on the drawing board which allows crew to fold away a standard seat and replace it with a wheelchair, securely attached to the aircraft for the journey.

Accessibility in action  

Safe spaces: Delta is working with disability groups to provide safe spaces in some airports for those with sensory challenges. It also has a mock cabin for practice-run visits for anxious travellers and support-dog training, in addition to disability training activities for crew. delta.com

Sight-loss support: Virgin Atlantic is working with the Guide Dogs charity to create a more inclusive air experience for those with sight loss. Cabin crew receive training on how to support passengers with skill and empathy. virginatlantic.com